Every language is a vast pattern-system, different from others, in which are culturally ordained the forms and categories by which the personality not only communicates, but also analyzes nature, notices or neglects types of relationship and phenomena, channels his reasoning, and builds the house of his consciousness.

- Benjamin Lee Whorf, author of:

Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf-


Linguistic relativism (or linguistic relativity, also known as Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) is “the hypothesis that people understand the world through the lens of their own language”, a concept introduced with the fourth issue of Mudita’s newsletter to continue the conversation on the topics of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism previously discussed in this article.

Today, we are going to talk the perception of colors in different cultures.


Linguistic relativity and color naming across cultures


Even though in the world of color research there’s an ongoing debate between “universalists” [1] - who believe that all people perceive and name colors in a consistent way -, and “relativists” [2] - who claim that color perception is influenced by the language used to talk about colors -, according to research:


- “English and Russian color terms divide the color spectrum differently. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”).” [3];


- English and Ndonga (or Oshindonga, a Bantu language spoken in Namibia and parts of Angola) "differ in the structure of their colour categories, on colour grouping, colour triads and visual search tasks” (e.g., “Ndonga has no basic terms for orange, pink, and purple. English orange is shared between oshitiligane ‘red’, and oshishunga‘yellow’; pink falls in oshitiligane ‘red’, and purple is shared between oshitiligane ‘red’ and oshimbulau ‘blue’.”) [4];


- Berinmo [a language of Papua New Guinea] and Himba [a language of Papua New Namibia] each have five basic color terms, in contrast with eleven in English.” [5];


- “Native Greek speakers, who distinguish categorically between light and dark shades of blue, showed boosted perception for this contrast compared with a verbally unmarked green contrast.”, while “German speakers, who have only one category for light and dark shades of blue, showed no differences in perception between blue and green targets.” [6];


- “Chinese (Mandarin) and Mongolian color terms divide the blue spectrum differently but the green spectrum, similarly. In Mongolian, light blue (“qinker”) and dark blue (“huhe”) are strictly distinct, while both light green and dark green are described as one word, nogvgan. In Chinese, however, both light blue and dark blue are simply described by one word, lan, and both light green and dark green are described by a single word, lv.” [7];


[On a related note, click here to discover an interesting linguistic quirk about Japan’s blue traffic lights].


Further research on the subject does also suggest that color naming across languages depends on depends on communicative needs (“Cultures vary in how useful color is. Industrialization, which creates objects distinguishable solely based on color, increases color usefulness”). [8]


In light of the above, given that color categorization does largely depend on the usefulness of a color to a specific society or language group and it’s context bound, it can be easily understood why and how color perception might lead to misunderstandings in cross-cultural interactions: for this reason, people operating in some professional contexts do often refer to tailor-made color labels that may not necessarily be color words, such as RAL color 4010/Telemagenta from the RAL CLASSIC color chart, or Pantone 137C from the Pantone collection.



The second part of this post, about cross-cultural web design, is available at this link on Mano’s blog.


Further recommended readings on color naming across languages and cultures can be found at the following links:








[1] Berlin, Brent & Kay, Paul (1969). ”Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution”. Berkeley: University of California Press

[2] Kay, Paul & Regier, Terry. (2006). “Language, thought and color: Recent developments. Trends in cognitive sciences”. 10. 51-4. 10.1016/j.tics.2005.12.007

[3] Winawer, Jonathan & Witthoft, Nathan & Frank, Michael & Wulund, Lisa & Wade, Alex & Boroditsky, Lera. (2007). “The Russian Blues Reveal Effects of Language on Color Discrimination”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 104. 7780-5. 10.1073/pnas.0701644104

[4] Pilling, Michael & Davies, Ian. (2004). “Linguistic relativism and colour cognition”.
British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953). 95. 429-55. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8192216_Linguistic_relativism_and_colour_cognition

[5] Cibelli E, Xu Y, Austerweil JL, Griffiths TL, Regier T (2016). “The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and Probabilistic Inference: Evidence from the Domain of Color”. PLoS ONE 11(7): e0158725. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0158725

[6] Maier, M., & Abdel Rahman, R. (2018). “Native Language Promotes Access to Visual Consciousness.” Psychological Science, 29(11), 1757–1772. 10.1177/0956797618782181

[7] He, H., Li, J., Xiao, Q., Jiang, S., Yang, Y., & Zhi, S. (2019). “Language and Color Perception: Evidence From Mongolian and Chinese Speakers”. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 551. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00551

[8] Gibson, E., Futrell, R., Jara-Ettinger, J., Mahowald, K., Bergen, L., Ratnasingam, S., Gibson, M., Piantadosi, S. T., & Conway, B. R. (2017). “Color naming across languages reflects color use”. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(40), 10785–10790. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1619666114


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the products/services listed here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

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